Museum Musings From Poland

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

I was privileged to spend ten days in Poland on a trip sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums with five colleagues from Jewish museums from across the country. During our trip we visited many museums where we explored the different ways that Poles interpret their complex (and often tragic) history. We also had ample opportunity to meet with staff at these museums and to discuss their interpretive strategies as well as to engage in conversation about the difficult task they face in commemorating the history of Polish Jews in a broader context than just the Holocaust.

Here are some highlights from our museum visits:

Museum of the City of Warsaw:

Our first day included a tour of the Old City of Warsaw where we learned about how the city was nearly completely demolished by the Nazis in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising. The Museum of the City of Warsaw occupies several reconstructed town homes in the Old City. Rather than detailing the city’s history through text panels and recreated spaces, the museum makes innovative use of models, timelines and charts to identify keep events and periods in the city’s history.

Models of the city of Warsaw

A beautifully designed exhibit showcases artifacts, but rather than grouping items in chronological order, they are displayed according to type so that one room houses postcards while another, silver and so on.

My favorite gallery was devoted to mermaids which is the symbol of Warsaw.

Our group of museum professionals was impressed with the clean design of the displays and the interpretive strategy in which one selected object in each case is highlighted. The minimal amount of text allowed for a greater appreciation of the objects.

POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews:

Being able to visit this recently opened museum was one of the impetuses for the trip. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s chief curator and advisor to the director, is an advisor to CAJM and was instrumental in helping to develop our trip itinerary. In preparation for our visit, we read several articles about the museum’s guiding principles and participated in a conference call with Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The museum is immense and includes a resource center, educational program space, temporary exhibition gallery and café. We were most appreciative of the opportunity to meet with several of the museum’s staff, including its executive director and education director and were guided through the core exhibit by its co-curator, Joanna Fikus, who shared fascinating insight into how the exhibit came together.

The Museum is located within the boundaries of where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood and its entrance is adjacent to a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that was erected in 1948.

The museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the entire 1,000 year span of Jewish history in Poland and to highlight the extent to which Jewish history and Polish history are intertwined. The galleries are filled with multi-media displays and interactive stations that provide layers of interpretation and engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Despite the three hours we had allotted to tour the exhibit, we still did not have enough time to see everything.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is stepping into a recreated wooden synagogue that was built with the assistance of an American workshop – a video explaining the construction process can be found HERE.

Praga Museum

A very different kind of museum experience awaited at the Praga Museum within an old Jewish quarter in Warsaw that survived the destruction of World War II. Unlike the other museums where we received guided tours, at the Praga we were left to wander on our own as we encountered dimly rooms filled with a variety of quirky displays interpreting the history of the neighborhood, juxtaposed with contemporary art installations exploring issues such as multiculturalism and geographical boundaries.

I felt right at home seeing a case filled with sewing machine and tailor implements, just like in Voices of Lombard Street.

The museum is housed in a former townhouse that once contained a private shul. The museum has uncovered fresco fragments from the shul that visitors can view.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Book of Names

Our day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau was difficult and exhausting as we waited in lines and navigated crowds to enter different barracks that house museum displays (daily attendance at the camp can reach as high as 11,000 visitors). We had difficulty finding the personal stories that are so essential to understanding the Holocaust because the interpretation is from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims. A recently opened exhibition in Block 27 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial, seeks to address this issue by displaying photographs and films of pre-war Jewish communities and an enormous book listing names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust that visitors can peruse. This was an especially emotional experience for several members of our group who found listings of family members who perished during the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Jewish Center

A display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

I first learned about the Auschwitz Jewish Center when the JMM hosted the exhibition A Town Known As Auschwitz last year. The museum preserves and interprets the rich pre-war Jewish history of Oswiecim (the Polish name of the town) and also includes the only synagogue in town that was not destroyed during World War II.

The only surviving synagogue.

While there are no Jews living any longer in Oswiecim, the museum serves as an important educational and cultural center. We had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s director who talked about how his staff works to teach visitors that there is more to Polish Jewish history than the Holocaust. We found our visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center an especially meaningful way to end our day spent in Auschwitz and as we ate dinner in a charming restaurant in the town that has become synonymous with the Holocaust, we discussed the importance of making all Poles understand the extent to which Polish Jewish heritage is an integral part of their history.

Galicia Jewish Museum

Our last two days were spent in Krakow, the center of Jewish renewal in Poland, where we learned about the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was left largely intact (the Wawel Castle served as the residence for the Governor of the General Government, Hans Frank) and its Jewish quarter contains six restored synagogues. Krakow also hosts an annual summer Jewish festival that attracts thousands of people. The Galicia Jewish Museum has been one of the leading institutions in the city’s Jewish renaissance. Our visit to the museum was the perfect way to bring our week to a close as we met with the museum’s director, deputy director and one of their board members. The Museum’s mission is to educate visitors that the Holocaust did not just happen at Auschwitz (so many visitors to Poland stop only at Auschwitz-Birkenau during their stay) and also to continue the story of Jewish history in Poland post-1945 during the communist regime and into the present. 40% of the museum’s visitors are non-Jewish, a reflection of the interest in non-Jews in learning about Jewish culture and history. As at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, we heard about their focus on working with the non-Jewish community as a means of gaining their assistance in preserving Jewish heritage in small towns and cities throughout the country.

We toured the museum’s temporary exhibit The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rwyka from the Lodz Ghetto, a beautifully designed installation featuring original artifacts and interactive stations that reinforced the concept of how focusing on individual stories can bring to life the history of the Holocaust in such meaningful ways.

The core exhibit Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland showcases color photographs by Professor Jonathan Webber and Chris Schwarz from the past 30 years documenting what remains of Jewish life in Polish towns. The exhibit powerfully reminds visitors that in order to learn about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it is important to look beyond Auschwitz and to visit small towns that once housed vibrant Jewish communities.

I arrived in Poland expecting to learn about the tragic history of its Jewish community in order to enrich my work at the JMM and also to bear witness to the loss of a culture. I was not prepared to visit such a broad array of museums that provide fascinating insight into Poland’s complex and nuanced history. I was inspired by the work that these amazing institutions and individuals are engaged in to ensure that Jewish Polish history is preserved in meaningful ways.

Read more about Deborah’s trip over at JMore: “Touring Poland Was ‘Life-Changing Experience'”

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Sacred Space, Past and Present

Posted on June 26th, 2017 by

Post by Collections Intern Joelle Paull.  To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Old Synagogue, Krakow

Old Synagogue, Krakow

Studying medieval art, I have become really interested in how ritual space shapes a community and in turn is shaped by a communities need. While studying and traveling in Europe, I found myself exploring medieval synagogues and Jewish ghettos. Until that point my studies had been focused on Christian ritual spaces that became the center of towns across Europe. I was excited and pleasantly surprised to find myself in Jewish ritual spaces, often the center of centuries old Jewish neighborhoods. In some cases, like in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, the only distinguishing features of the synagogues are the rows of windows in the upper gallery.

These were unusual when compared to the narrow, cramped homes surrounding them. The same is true of the Old Synagogue in Krakow, one of the many centuries old synagogues on the perimeter of the city center, which was built in the 15th century, underwent many changes and was ultimately renovated and restored in the 20th century after WWII. Today, it is located in the corner of a square and is a simple multi-level brick building, with three large windows over the large entrance. From the outside there is little indication of the function of the building or the large rib vaulted interior.

Color snapshot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue facade, c. 1982.

Color snapshot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue facade, c. 1982.

Walking into the Lloyd Street Synagogue my first day of work, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the synagogue and the spaces I had studied. The Lloyd Street Synagogue is a perfect example of a ritual space that evolved over centuries to reflect the community around it. The synagogue was the center of the Jewish community in Baltimore and as such took on both a religious and civic importance. The archaeological discoveries at the current synagogue, showcased in the exhibit, The Synagogue Speaks, allow us to understand what the synagogue looked like from 1845 to today.

From this understanding we can begin to understand how it functioned on a day to day basis and the role it had in the lives of its patrons. The unassuming facade of the sacred building gives little to no indication that it is a synagogue. It was only in the 1900s, after the building was converted the building back into a synagogue that the exterior begins to show signs of its function – Hebrew lettering on the portico, the gallery level windows on the façade. The 20th century synagogue, until it was beginning in the 1960s, was elaborately decorated, with new furniture, chandeliers, and murals. The following restoration returned the synagogue to its original 1860s appearance. The ability to walk into a space and see the many layers of its history makes the Lloyd Street Synagogue unique. The oral and written histories and the many artifacts only add to our understanding of the space itself.

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Inventory and the Crystal Chandelier: A Journey Into Deep Intellectual Thought

Posted on June 18th, 2015 by

The Good Soldier and myself in Przemysl, Poland.

The Good Soldier and myself in Przemysl, Poland.

After spending six weeks abroad in the beautiful country of Poland during my senior year of college, I have embarked on a professional and academic journey into Holocaust studies. While it is clearly not a cheerful topic, it is one that I find to be challenging and interesting. My graduate school experience at the George Washington University, where I am a MA Museum Studies student, has included an internship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sociology of the Holocaust and Genocide course, and two Holocaust related classes planned for my final year. I am thankful for my internship with JMM, because through all of the horrors and devastations of the Holocaust which I have studied, this museum is a reminder of the vibrant Jewish culture which managed to survive and thrive after the Holocaust.

One of my primary projects over this summer is to perform the scheduled inventory of the JMM permanent collection. While going through a drawer, I came across two items, a crystal facet and crystal pendant, accompanied by an incredible provenance. Once again, the Holocaust became a focus point for my work.

Crystal Chandelier Facet. JMM 1986.072.032

Crystal Chandelier Facet. JMM 1986.072.032

Crystal Chandelier Pendant. JMM 1986.072.033

Crystal Chandelier Pendant. JMM 1986.072.033

In December of 1938, just a month after Krystallnacht (the systematic burning of Germany’s synagogues by the Nazis) Richard Zurndorfer escaped Germany and traveled to Baltimore, MD. He managed to bring several items with him, including these crystal pieces, belonging to a chandelier from a synagogue in Mhringen, Germany, which was destroyed during Kystallnacht. A census list of European Jews and a Torah were also brought over. JMM is now home to these items.

The story of Mr. Zurnforfer made me think about how important artifacts are. While museums are always evolving to remain relevant to the public, it is crucial to remember the value of artifacts. This collection meant a great deal to Mr. Zurnforfer, who was described as “A man with respect for old traditions, he sticks like printer’s ink to his family artifacts – largely because they are the artifacts of his family,” by reporter Isaac Rehert of The Sun on January 17, 1978. In regards to the objects, Rehert says, “They tell the story of a thriving Jewish community acknowledged and valued by its sovereign, with roots deep down in Germany’s culture, with hardly a hint of the tragedy that was to overtake it.”

Whether coming across these items was strictly a coincidence, or an act of fate, I am again reminded about why I have chosen to work in museum collections. Artifacts facilitate relationships and lead to connections. In this case, the Holocaust becomes more than a Nazi, Jewish, or European issue. It becomes a Maryland, Baltimore, and JMM intern issue. I hope to have more intense thought provoking experiences like this one while I continue to inventory the collection!

IMG_0985A blog post by Collections Intern Kaleigh Ratliff. To read more posts from interns click HERE.

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